Travel

I had no idea I was related to so many Dutch people. We have just completed a ten-day family odyssey through Holland and, important and illuminating as it was, Mum and I are exhausted. Discovering ones roots can really take it out of you. I have been about as polite as I can for as long as I can and I haven’t been drunk with people my own age for far too long. Mum has repeated the same stories and explanations so many times she’s forgetting the words.

Friday night, though, and we fly to Barcelona. Friday and we can relax, have our own space, talk without thinking about who’s listening. Spain, Catalonia – a beautiful place we hear, with ocean and sun, hot like home with brilliant food and sangria and the bronzed, attractive peoples of the Mediterranean. “Uh – Barcelona!” people say when I tell them I’m going there. “Now there’s a city.”

Our plane lands just shy of midnight and we take a bus into the city and lug our bags to our hostal, which is like a hostel, only for grown-ups. The streets are drunken and celebratory and I immediately sense a menace to night-time Barcelona and know that, unlike Prague or Vienna or Budapest, or even Berlin to a certain extent, this is not a place I should walk around alone at night. Checked in but hungry, we find a kebab restaurant around the corner and sit upstairs, eating drunk food stone sober among the Friday night revellers.

In the morning we discover how far we are away from everything and use the hostal’s puttering wireless to look up something closer. I haven’t seen the ocean in five very long landlocked months and that’s most of what I can think about. We start walking. We walk and walk through the heat and get frustrated with our ridiculous map and Barcelona’s confusing street plan. I get a glimpse of the harbour.

The new place is as small as the last, and its idea of heat repellent is one small, badly positioned revolving fan, but the guy at the desk is nice and at least we’re central. Mum naps while I go in search of the sea. Mapless, I walk and I walk and I walk, find the harbour again, follow it in the wrong direction to see where it will end. Eventually, I find a great big bridge leading to a breakwater and there it is – that long, unbroken, perfect blue horizon and I am calm in a way that only the sea and writing can make me.

The next day we move again. Mum feels bad. She wants to stay in a place where I can hang out with people who aren’t my mother. We pay too much for a twin double in a youth-hostel but it’s huge and air-conditioned and has a hotplate (though no pots), so at least now we have a place to cool down and spread out a bit. Unfortunately, the hostel itself one of those meat-market, planned activity, pub-crawl kind of places, and besides, I don’t really have the energy to go through the whole meeting randoms process anyway.

Five months away from home and I am exhausted in a way that has nothing to do with physical exertion and everything to do with the lack of it. Travel is hard. Not because of the constant movement or the living out a duffle-bag – I’m good at these things. I can survive easily on three t-shirts and a pair of jeans, a few toiletries and my label-maker, and I sleep on moving buses better than I do in my own bed. No, what I am exhausted by is the lack of purpose.

Once the novelty of foreign places and no responsibility and beautiful freedom wear off, you’re left with just that – no ties in a foreign place. Freedom is hard – much harder than captivity. More than anything else, I crave work. I crave routine, doing something that is contributing to something else, physical activity that isn’t just aimless, exploratory walking.

Travel can be broken down into the acquisition of necessities – food, shelter, internet – followed by basic exploration. It is waiting and making bookings and spending money and looking out the window. It is (furtive, hidden glances at) maps and tour brochures and maybe some rudimentary history. It is beer in different currencies, streets you can’t pronounce the names of, figuring out how to work ticket machines in metro stations, your toothbrush on someone else’s sink.

Barcelona in July, as Mum and I soon discover, is hot and way overpriced and full of tourists. It is a big, dirty city. The Beaches are so crowded it’s hard to find a patch of sand big enough for your towel, the water is human soup. Swim a little ways out and it’s better though, and I live by the doctrine that a swim in the ocean makes the whole world better, but even so, Barcelona in July is not at all what we had hoped for.

Mind you, I’m sure it’s a very different place in a different season, or if you’ve got the money for it, or when you’re not travelling with you mother, or your insanely restless and travel-weary daughter.

We think about going somewhere else, a little town outside Barcelona maybe, but the thought of walking through all those degrees of heat to wait in line at a tourist bureau, then figuring out a way of getting there and accommodation and then getting back – it’s all just too hard.

So we stay and enjoy ourselves whether we like it or not. I swim out beyond the band-aid rafts and small children, Mum people-watches from the beach. We sit and talk and drink sangria anyway. We walk for ever and ever through the streets, we stand outside the things Gaudi made (look at the hour-long lines and double-figure Euro entry fees, decide to just enjoy the exteriors and go into the tourist shops to look at pictures of the inside), we eat too much icecream.

I think about home. I don’t miss home, I decide. I miss the ease of home. I miss being able to land in a city, look for a sharehouse in my own language, find a job without having to worry about a visa. Going home would be so easy. I could go to Brisbane, move in with friends, get a bar-tending job somewhere, some publishing or even writing work. I would be a functioning part of society again. I could go to Woodford at the end of the year, do set-up. I even have a return plan in that job I have in the Arctic in June. So it wouldn’t really be giving up. I would come back. It would just be a postponement – time-out, a quick rest.

On the morning Mum leaves, I wake up wishing I had made more of an effort to be a better travel buddy. I fly to Prague for a few days to meet my brother and then take a bus to Berlin, where I plan to live until my job starts next June. A part of me is still thinking very seriously about home, but it has a strong adversary in the determination that has allowed me to achieve everything I have so far, and which is insisting that I man the fuck up and at least give it a go.

I have about 10 hours to kill before the girl whose place I was supposed to be staying at returns home from London, so put my stuff in a locker at Alexanderplatz station and wander around the city. I take the underground to Kreutzberg and find a cafe with wireless, play around on the net trying to find a place to live. Then I buy myself a beer from a corner store and lie around in a park reading for a while.

After a while, a group of kids walk by, all around my age, and speaking English. From the snatches of conversation I catch, I can tell they live here. I hesitate for a minute, then get up, walk over, and ask them what it is like living in Berlin. How easy is it to get jobs? Is there cash-in-hand work or do I needed a visa? They aren’t very optimistic.

“I play music on the streets for money,” one of them says. I’ve heard that Berlin has a 40% unemployment rate, so I’m not all that surprised.

“Are you hungry?” one of them asks suddenly.

“Uh, yeah,” I say. “I’m pretty hungry.”

“They’re putting on a dinner at this place around the corner at 8 if you want to join. Vegan potato salad. Only a euro-fifty, but if you say you have no money they’ll probably give it to you for free.”

“I reckon I can spare a euro-fifty.”

They give me directions and a couple hours later, at 8pm, I follow them to the courtyard of this massive, dilapidated apartment building. Someone later explains to me that it is what is known as a housing project, which is like a squat only they’ve worked out an agreement with the owner. The place is covered from head to foot with graffiti and people sit around on sofas or cross-legged on the ground, eating, drinking and talking. I get myself some food and find the group I had met in the park. They are different from the sort of people people I am used to hanging out with but they are friendly and interesting and easy to talk to. The food is magnificent. To my left a couple of heavily tattooed German guys play a violent game of ping-pong. Dogs wrestle on the concrete, music plays from somewhere and people talk and laugh openly. A girl tells me about an open bike-building workshop on Fridays. Someone else starts talking about the gigs all over the place.

I could live here, I think to myself. Yeah – I could live here. Easy.

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